JACKSONVILLE – The NFL Draft is unkind to running backs these days.
It's not that the league doesn't need players at the position, it just doesn't value them as much as once was the case. And that's likely to be as true in the 2022 NFL Draft as it has been in recent years.
Not that there aren't very good players available at the position.
"I love this running back group," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
But the presence of very good running backs – players such as Kenneth Walker III of Michigan State, Breece Hall of Iowa State and Isaiah Spiller of Texas A&M – doesn't mean the position necessarily will be selected in the first round.
NFL and Jaguars Media analyst Bucky Brooks said Walker and Hall could be selected late in the first round – as much because of their abilities as receivers as runners.
"Those guys are Steady Eddie in the running game, but they're also really good catching the ball out of the backfield," Brooks said. "If you feel like you have to have a guy who can do it all, a three-down back you don't have to take off the field, those are the ones who have a chance in the first round."
A reason many teams may pass on running backs early in the draft: a belief that productive players at the position can be found later in the later rounds. That belief has increased around the league in recent seasons, and a similar sentiment exists this year.
"I don't think there's going to be one that goes in the first round," Jeremiah said. "I think this is a really deep group. I was talking with a personnel director [recently] and said, 'Let's just circle the fourth round.' You're going to get a great back in the fourth round, especially if you want a bigger back."
Brooks agreed and said, "The bulk of it is that on Day 2 – second or third round – you can find whatever you want to find in this draft. There are a bunch of good running backs that can make plays and have an impact. There are plenty of guys who can emerge.
“It’s about identifying what traits you value and how you project a player playing within your rotation.” Bucky Brooks
Brooks: "The league has had a shift in how they see the position. Just because you don't see guys in the Top 20, it may not be indicative of their talent as much as positional value. Because you have seen so many guys come out of the second and third round and put up big numbers, teams are more likely to follow that trend."
HANDICAPPING THE JAGUARS
This is an intriguing position for the Jaguars this offseason, with injuries making it that way. Running back James Robinson, the Jaguars' leading rusher the past two seasons, sustained an Achilles injury last December. Travis Etienne Jr., the No. 25 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft and a player who could provide big plays and offensive versatility at running back, missed his rookie season with a Lisfranc injury. Head Coach Doug Pederson recently said both "are doing extremely well," adding that Etienne will be able to do "football drill work" this offseason while Robinson likely will return "a little more into training camp." Running back doesn't figure to be a Day 1 issue for the Jaguars in this draft. The health of Robinson/Etienne could play a role in if/when the position is addressed on Day 2 or 3.
PROJECTED POSSIBLE FIRST-ROUND RUNNING BACKS
Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State; Breece Hall, Iowa State.
CHANCE JAGUARS TAKE A RUNNING BACK IN ROUND 1
RBs ON THE JAGUARS ROSTER
On the roster: James Robinson, Travis Etienne Jr., Ryquell Armstead, Nathan Cottrell, Mekhi Seargent.
BROOKS' BREAKS DOWN THE CLASS
The 2022 running back class features plenty of depth and talent, but there are not any sure-fire first-round picks in the group. Hall and Walker are the marquee players in the class with well-rounded games that should allow them to flourish as runners and receivers in wide-open offenses. As three-down backs with the capacity to impact the game with their versatility, they will be hot commodities as borderline Day 1 prospects.
There is a lot of buzz around Pierre Strong's potential as a change-of-pace weapon out of the backfield. The South Dakota State standout is a shifty runner with outstanding vision, balance and body control. Strong has a knack for finding creases and cracks on the backside while also displaying the discipline to take what is available on the front side. As a sticky-fingered pass catcher with impressive ball skills and slick route-running ability, the small school star is an intriguing prospect with impact potential as a rotational player.
It is hard to find running backs with the skills to also play in the slot or out wide as a pseudo-receiver. Hall is a rare find as a versatile playmaker with a crafty playing style that makes him a quarterback-friendly weapon in any offense. As a prolific point scorer (56 career touchdowns) and multi-faceted weapon out of the backfield with 4,675 all-purpose yards and 82 receptions on his resume, Hall is the playmaker that every offensive play-caller covets in the huddle. Given how the NFL is trending towards a pass-centric emphasis, Hall's unique skill set could make him a star in a system that features the running back in a variety of roles.